A life marked by confusion, an arrest full of questions

Suspect: Some describe Donta Maurice Allen, accused of killing a Hopkins student, as warm, others as damaged.

April 15, 2005|By Jason Song and Ryan Davis | Jason Song and Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Donta Maurice Allen's prom picture is a mess. The photo of the murder suspect has been torn in two. The colors are mottled. Tape has shredded spots of the generic blue background.

"It's really in pieces now," says Allen's sister, Chikia Forbes, as she holds the bits that have fallen apart with age and rough handling.

The photo is a fitting symbol for Allen, a 27-year-old transient restaurant worker accused of suffocating a Johns Hopkins University senior in January. Described as a boy as having a personality that shone like "a light bulb," Allen is now in jail, awaiting trial for a crime that drew national attention and shocked a city accustomed to homicides in abandoned rowhouses but not near its vaunted institutions.

Allen's arrest last month was puzzling for many reasons. Perhaps the most obvious question: How did a high school dropout with no fixed address charm his way into the social circles of one of the nation's most prestigious universities?

The well-dressed man could make friends across racial and social lines, his friends say. He had turned his life around after at least one suicide attempt and psychiatric hospitalization, and, to his supporters, it's not surprising that Allen could become a regular part of the Hopkins social scene, hanging out with largely white, privileged students who were years younger.

But Hopkins students and authorities view Allen as a smooth-talking man damaged by a fractured family life and frequent moves - including a juvenile detention stint at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School - who romanced a naive Hopkins student and later killed one of her friends.

Some believe Allen's warmth was an almost desperate need to find acceptance, even among students who called him "Mr. Sketchy" behind his back. They say he had a tendency to lash out when rejected - threatening an ex-girlfriend, according to court records, and getting fired from several jobs for insubordination, according to former co-workers.

"Without growing up with a family and being used to all the family stuff, he probably missed some [things]," says his high school guidance counselor, Bruce Seward. "He didn't really know boundaries."

From the beginning, Allen's life was marked by confusion. He was born on Valentine's Day, 1978, and his mother, Karnia Forbes, named him Donta. But "nobody ever got it right so people just called him Donte," she says.

A family picture taken when Allen was 4 shows a beaming child sitting on his mother's lap with a cousin and his sister. Underneath, his mother wrote: "Donte."

Youth in Cherry Hill

He grew up in the Cherry Hill neighborhood, where most of his family lived, and was nicknamed "Donahue" because he often acted like the talk-show host.

"He never gave me any trouble," his mother says. "When he broke a glass, he'd tell me about it."

But Allen chafed at his Cherry Hill surroundings, seemingly frustrated by a neighborhood where residents pile old furniture on their lawns, drug dealing is rampant and slow-moving police cars are ever-present. "He didn't want to come up in the scene. He wanted to get above and beyond," says his aunt, Vida Forbes.

Allen tried to separate himself in little ways. He would say "isn't" instead of "ain't" and never uttered "yo." "He didn't know no slang like the rest of us," says his sister, Chikia Forbes.

The family moved several times, including a brief stint in Los Angeles, before returning to Northwest Baltimore when Allen was 11 or 12.

Around that time, Allen broke into a shoe store with a friend and was sent to the Hickey school. "We're not sure why he did it. We think it was a peer pressure thing," Forbes says.

That was the last time Allen lived with his mother. He hadn't yet started to shave, his mother says.

After he was released from Hickey, Allen went to live with a counselor from the facility, his family says.

Fitting in at Perry Hall

Allen enrolled at Perry Hall High School in 1996, according to Seward, his former guidance counselor.

Perry Hall's student body is largely white, but Allen fit in easily, telling his classmates stories about his rough upbringing, according to Seward. "His stories were kind of riveting to middle-class America."

"That personality was like a light bulb. It was warm. I think he drew people to him," Seward says. "Young women were very much at ease with him."

All of his girlfriends were white, according to his family, and Allen was dressing more and more conservatively, using the money he earned at part-time restaurant jobs to shop at stores like Gap and J. Crew.

While Allen was thriving socially at school, his home life was choppy, bouncing from place to place. Allen lived with classmate Aaron Smith's family in a two-story suburban home for much of the 1996-1997 school year. "At one point, I thought he didn't have any family," Smith says.

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